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To many Alaskans, Canada seems more like the neighbor next door than it does a foreign country. But if U.S. citizens want to drop in on that neighbor, they're going to have start carrying a passport.
The federal government announced a plan last week to require passports if U.S. residents want to re-enter the country after a visit to Canada, Mexico, Panama or Bermuda. The proposal would go into effect by 2008.
The goal is to protect Americans against terrorists. But the likely effect would be to cut into the business activity that now flourishes close to the U.S.-Canadian border.
No longer would Southeast Alaska residents be able to spontaneously decide to get away for a weekend in Whitehorse, Yukon, or Atlin, British Columbia. A first-time passport for an adult costs $97 and takes six to eight weeks to process.
If Juneau residents want to participate in the Dustball softball tournament or play at the Frostbite Music Festival in Whitehorse, they would have to make sure they plan for the paperwork well in advance so they don't get left behind by their team or their band.
Likewise Canadians would be required to carry a passport if they decide to attend the Alaska Folk Festival or visit Haines for its Alaska Bald Eagle Festival. The extra hassle, cost and required planning could mean some people just wouldn't go, and Alaska towns would lose the revenue these visits bring.
The proposed requirement also raises questions about emergency medical care for Haines and Skagway residents, who at times are rushed to Whitehorse when urgent care is needed. It could pose major problems for those who unexpectedly end up in the Yukon because of a medical crisis, but can't get home again without a passport.
National security is, of course, critical, but the likelihood that the passport requirement would hinder terrorism is slim. Terrorists carefully plan their acts of violence, and if a passport is needed to get into the country, extremists will make sure they have the proper paperwork. Instead, the people this restriction is likely to affect are the average citizens who want to conduct business across the border.
U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, is questioning this proposed passport requirement. Other members of the Alaska congressional delegation should join her and work to make sure federal changes do not hinder travel and commerce between Alaska and Canada. This measure may be aimed at terrorists, but it's much more likely to hit cross-border business.